Diasporic Literatures: Where Do They Belong?
‘Africa is our centre of gravity, our cultural and spiritual mother and father, our beating heart, no matter where we live on the face of this earth.’ – Dr. John Henrik Clarke
‘As long as I am on the (African) continent, somewhere, I don’t feel like I am in exile.’
– Nurrudin Farah, Somali writer
There’s a rumble in the literary jungle. In African newspaper literary supplements and on literary blogs, there is a growing sentiment by African-based authors and poets that their diaspora-based contemporaries are being given undue attention at the expense of writers who actually live and work on the continent. Some of these ‘diasporic writers’, they argue, have lived abroad so long (especially in the USA, UK, Canada, France, Italy, Germany and Russia) that their ‘Africanness’ must have been diluted (if not eroded) by other cultures by now and they therefore lack the ‘authority’ to represent African views or sensibilities. If you want to read an African author, they ask, why don’t you read the words of a person who actually lives on the continent? The following excerpt from an online article by Siyanda Mohutsiwa4 (4 From ‘I’m Done With African Immigrant Literature’ (article for OkayAfrica.com) outlines some of the frustrations:
I’m over it: Immigrant Literature
I don’t know when it happened. It might have been somewhere in the middle of Teju Cole’s Open City, as I followed his protagonist around the streets of New York. Or maybe it was at the end of NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, when I boarded the flight to America with its precocious star. Or perhaps it was a few weeks after finishing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, and I had finally begun to forget the stress carried by illegal African immigrants in Europe.
Whichever way it happened, it happened. And I found myself flinging my copy of The Granta Book of the African Story across the room, vowing to never read a piece of African Fiction again, or at least its ‘Afropolitan’ variety.
Some notable examples of ‘immigrant literature’ are:
Behold the Dreamers – Imbolo Mbue (2016)
Breath, Eyes, Memory – Edwidge Danticat (1994)
The Refugee Boy – Benjamin Zephaniah (2001)
How to Read the Air – Dinaw Mengestu (2011)
On Black Sister’s Street – Chika Unigwe (2007)
Open City – Teju Cole (2011)
We Need New Names – NoViolet Bulawayo (2013)
Foreign Gods, Inc. – Okey Ndibe (2014)
Harare North – Brian Chikwava (2009)
The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears – Dinaw Mengestu (2007)
The Consequences of Love – Sulaiman Addonia (2008)\
Americanah – Chimamanda Adichie (2013)
Some diasporic authors (some of whom earned literary recognition by winning Africa-centric foreign awards) initially travelled abroad (or ‘went foreign’, as Jamaicans would say) in order to pursue higher education, visit relatives, work temporarily, or on fellowships/scholarships (arts- related or not). The problem, their detractors say, is that they stayed there so long that they might as well consider themselves residents of their adopted countries. Examples of these include Ben Okri (UK), originally from Nigeria; Imbolo Mbue (USA), originally from Cameroon; Chimamanda Achichie (USA), originally from Nigeria; Warsan Shire (UK/USA), originally from Somalia5 (5 Born in Kenya but of Somali heritage.); Teju Cole (USA), originally from Nigeria; NoViolet Bulawayo (USA), originally from Zimbabwe; Maaza Mengiste (USA), originally from Ethiopia; Chinelo Okparanta (USA), originally from Nigeria; Nadifa Mohamed (UK), originally from Somalia/Somaliland; and Taiye Selasie (UK/USA/Italy) who is of Nigerian and Ghanaian heritage.
Chimamanda Adichie speaking at the The PEN World Voices Festival (2017):
My sensibilities were largely shaped by Nigeria. I didn’t come into the US until I was 19. There’s a
kind of distance it affords me when I look at the US.
Cameroonian author Imbule Mbue gained worldwide fame after the rights to her first novel, Behold the Dreamers, were reportedly sold by an agent to a publisher for USD $1 million. Imbolo, whose book revolves around African immigrants caught up the 2008 financial meltdown exemplified by the fall of the Lehman Brothers financial institution, has since done numerous interviews, including one with Oprah Winfrey whose powerful book club discussed the novel. An interview published online by O magazine in August 2017 introduced the novel thus:
When Cameroon native Imbolo Mbue lost her job as a research manager following the crash of 2008, she began to question why she’d come to the United States in the first place. But she found purpose in writing, and now her first novel, Behold the Dreamers, is our latest Oprah’s Book Club pick.
FOR COLOURED GIRLS: Novelist Imbolo Mbue (left) and media mogul Oprah Winfrey during their interview for ‘O’ magazine/Oprah Winfrey Book Club
Another category of ‘diasporic African writers’ consists of academics/scholars who have long- term jobs in universities/institutes abroad (or are in exile) and who have lived there so long that they are considered ‘visiting professors/scholars/intellectuals’ when they return to continental Africa! Some of them have lived abroad for decades and have families there. These include Nurrudin Farah, Chris Abani, Ngũgi wa Thiong’o, Mukoma wa Ngũgi, Alamin Mazrui (nephew of the now late Prof. Ali Mazrui), Huddah Ibrahim, Dr Israel Dunmade, amongst many others.
During a Deutsche Welle TV interview preceding the inaugural African literature festival in Berlin (‘Writing in Migration’, 2018), the host asked Prof. Mukoma wa Ngũgi, ‘You have lived in Kenya as well as the United States so what are you? Are you an American? Are you an African? Again, how does that play into your writing?’ Mukoma’s response:
I would say I am many things. I have multiple identities. I claim both the US and Kenya as home and I believe that I have a duty to love both and to be critical and to try and grow both. Certainly, it has influenced my writing. Nairobi Heat has an African-American detective who goes to Kenya in search of his identity. In most of my writing, you will find that sort of, uh, I guess migrations, people in search of who they are…I am an African writer, but if you allow African writers to be many things, you know, then an African writer is somebody other African writers consider to be an African writer. It’s a roundabout way of saying that let African writers be many things, have multiple identities, and the same thing with African literature.
Also in 2018, the Brunel University Poetry Prize became a major talking point for African literary stakeholders after some astute bloggers noticed that virtually all of that year’s nominees for the prestigious foreign-sponsored award were based in the diaspora! The excerpt below, from an article titled ‘Brunel Shortlist 2018 Controversy: The Politics of Being Too Black’, published online by Information Nigeria news portal, exemplifies the angst felt by continental literati:
Over the years, I had thought that the Brunel International Poetry Prize was meant to project African voices in their raw awesomeness no matter which part of the world you live, without discrimination as long as you are African and the poems meet the required standard.
But the events of the past few days have convinced me to believe that Brunel is a pseudo-African platform…with a twisted view to ridicule, re-colonise and downgrade African writers domiciled in Africa.
If a poetry competition as Brunel (I had rated as impressive) stoops so low as to shortlist poems for its poetry prize based not on the basis of excellence but who has had ‘access to creative writing education and a literature development culture outside of the continent, especially in the US and UK’, according to a statement by its founder, British-Nigerian writer Bernadino Evaristo, then African poetry is dead on arrival…
What it means in layman’s language is that a majority of African writers who are talented will be ignored for the fact that they are not privileged to have access to creative writing education abroad…
6 of the poets shortlisted this year do not live in Africa (and may never have stepped foot on the continent). For the remaining two: one lives in Cairo and studied at the University of Mississippi (she’s got the abroad connection), while the other is a Nigerian (chosen obviously to save face)…
Three nominees were jointly awarded the 2018 Brunel Prize, which to many pundits looked like a non-decision, a deadlock amongst the judges. An occasional two-person tie is normal (as is a ‘draw’ in a field match) but who ever heard of a three-person tie in a writing competition? That sounds more like a shortlist. Shouldn’t there have been some kind of run-off to determine an ultimate winner? As it was, the joint winners were: Momtaza Mehri (Somalia), Theresa Lola (Nigeria) and Hiwot Adilow (Ethiopia). The stated aim of the Brunel International Poetry Prize is ‘the development, celebration and promotion of poetry from Africa.’
Foreign-sponsored ‘African’ literary awards have always been viewed with suspicion. And as more and more African-based writers embrace their ‘Africanness’ (many of them have symbolically dropped their Christian/Western names for their ethnic ones, like Nigeria’s Ayọ ọ and Kenya’s Okwiri Oduor) these reward schemes have declined in popularity (and become popular targets of negative criticism). A perfect example of this is the UK-based Caine Prize for African Writing. In the first decade of this millennium, the Caine Prize was like an African Nobel Prize for Literature. Highly prestigious and sweetened with a sizeable monetary prize (UK £10,000), it launched literary stars on an annual basis; stars who oftentimes went on to be signed by literary agents and/or define literary success for upcoming scribes. The early writers associated with the prize include Leila Aboulela (Sudan), Helon Habila (Nigeria), Binyavanga Wainaina (Kenya), Yvonne Owour (Kenya) and Brian Chikwava (Zimbabwe). But after almost two decades of existence, interest in Caine has began to fade. Even a writer and arts critic like myself would be hard-pressed to name the last five or so Caine winners. Controversy stalks the prize like a hyena tracking a wounded antelope through the savannah. When the 2015 winner, Namwali Serpell (Zambia), offered to share the prize money with her fellow nominees, it was described as nothing short of a ‘mutiny’6. According to a report by America’s National Public Radio (NPR), Namwali’s ‘act of mutiny’ was, in fact, ‘premeditated’. She’s was quoted as saying:
It’s such a wonderful group of people, such a cohesive group of writers. And it felt weird and sad that we are now going to be pitted against each other in some kind of battle royal. I think, for the writers obviously, literature is not a competitive sport.
But if Namwali’s act was a ‘mutiny’ then Binyavanga Wainaina’s repeated attacks were a declaration of (civil) war. Binyavanga made us question the very essence of foreign-based accolades. Apart from ‘dissing’ the Caine Prize online, he referred to its administrators as ‘bloody colonizers’ in his famous memoir, One Day I Will Write About this Place.
Curiously, as the Caine Prize was declining in popularity, Brittle Paper (a blog whose tagline is ‘An African literary experience’) mysteriously felt the need to do online PR for it, as seen in this article on WokeAfrica.com:
After the (short)list was announced, controversy started again when Binyavanga began tweeting ‘Dear Caine Prize’, attacking the logic behind the prize as an institution.’You made nothing, produced nothing, distributed nothing’, he tweeted. That hurt badly. The most interesting thing about this time was that while the prize was losing legitimacy, it was gaining media support. The blogs and websites helped manage the Caine Prize’s suffering image. Brittle Paper was playing Olivia Pope in the Scandal that was the Caine Prize’s image. They were running review series for the shortlisted stories and the editor Ainehi Edoro even wrote about them for The Guardian.
The said editor, Ainehi Edoro (Nigeria), has a PhD. in English from Duke University, USA. For years, this was announced, fortissimo, on the permanent frame of the site. To their credit, BP has now changed the text to the following, more professional, proclamation:
Welcome to Brittle Paper, your go-to site for African writing and literary culture. We bring you all the latest news and juicy updates on publications, authors, events, prizes, and lifestyle.
Like the Caine Prize, Brittle Paper is no stranger to controversy. In 2016, they published a list of of that year’s ‘best literary pieces’, which made people wonder what their definition of ‘African literature’ was. The list looked like a hodgepodge of articles from sources such as the UK Guardian. Or rather, it looked like the material you would easily access about African writings if you lived in Europe or America. Venting on Facebook.com (on 21 Dec 2016) a West African co- founder/editor of a popular lit magazine (name withheld) made the following comments:
6 Probably a reference to/pun on the famous film The Caine Mutiny, because the prize is also called ‘Caine’.
Anything from the good people of Wawa Book Review? Anyway some nice writing dey here though.
Most online responses were similar to the one above. It didn’t help that two of the listed ‘best pieces’ were by Brittle Paper’s founder – Ainehi Edoro – herself! While some argued that any such list was bound to be subjective, Brittle Paper came across as being about as African as fufu is American.
To be fair, Brittle Paper doesn’t always hit the wrong notes. The team behind it appear genuinely passionate about the goings-on in the African literary scene. Some of the articles, like ‘Poet Nacima Qorane Sentenced to Jail in Somaliland for Advocating for a Reunified Somalia’, are sobering, timely and helpful. However, BP’s tendency towards trivia, author ‘beefs’ (infighting), star gazing, navel gazing, and steamy sex tales, makes it seem more like ‘the TMZ of African Literature’7 (7 TMZ is an American tabloid news website that mainly focuses on celebrities and entertainment news.) Despite its unenviable reputation as a ‘gossip website’ TMZ has managed to attract tons of viewers and is currently reported to have an impressive turnover of over USD$ 10 million per year.) If the editors were aiming for a literary tabloid, then they have succeeded.
As for the Caine Prize, it is wholly inaccurate to claim that it has ‘created nothing’. There is a reason why it remains one of the most coveted African literary accolades going. Many past winners have testified to the transformation that Caine has brought to their careers and general livelihood. In an interview with This is Africa website following his 2013 Caine Prize win, Tope Folarin (Nigeria/USA) said:
Winning the Caine Prize changed everything. This sounds like a cliché, I know, but in my case it is true. For example, before I won the Caine Prize I was looking for an agent, and I was still struggling to get my work published. The morning after I won the prize I had a number of offers in my inbox, from both agents and publishers.
Along the same lines, Zimbabwe’s NoViolet Bulawayo was virtually unknown even after her short story, Hitting Budapest (2010), was published in the Boston Review. But since Hitting Budapest won the Caine Prize (and was further developed into a novel titled We Need New Names) NoViolet has been a staple in modern African literary discourse. According to an article in The Guardian, titled ‘NoViolet Bulawayo Wins African Booker” ’ (12 Jul 2011), and written by Alison Flood:
The Zimbabwean writer was ‘excited’ to win Caine Prize, which is worth £10,000 and known as the African Booker, counting Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee among its patrons. ‘It’s one of Africa’s biggest prizes, she said.
NoViolet’s first novel We Need New Names went on to win the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award (2013) for debut fiction, a Betty Trask Award (2014), and the inaugural Etisalat Prize for Literature (2014) which takes place in Nigeria. It was nominated for the Man Booker Prize (2013), The Guardian First Book Award (2013) and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Award (2013) finalist.
Image: The Monthly
NoViolet Bulawayo (right) in one of the many interviews/talks she has had since Hitting Budapest won the Caine Prize
Note that what constitutes ‘African literature’ is a recurrent and inexhaustible topic, especially in the face of increasing diasporic output and more frequent foreign travel/immigration by Africans. A globetrotting, US-educated East African writer (name withheld) postulated the following views on Facebook:
Arrrrrrgggh…..I risk getting into trouble for saying this, but I’m getting so tired of this narrative that says great African writing is as a result of our interaction with the West, the migrant story etc. There are tens of thousands of amazing novels coming out in our continent that are actually about Africans in Africa…I’m not trying to pit each camp against the other (Africans born and raised in Africa, living in Africa) vs. Africans in Diaspora. All our stories are worth telling, but can we stop acting as if some stories are more authentic than others because they capture the African experience in the West. I want to read about Africans in contemporary Gabarone, Nairobi, Abidjan, Dakar, Luanda, Praia, Jozi, Kinshasa, Kigali. I am fortunate that I actually get to meet writers from these places and devour their work.
Yes. I also want to read about Africans in New York, London etc., but I refuse this constant narrative that the depth of the African experience can only be understood against the backdrop of ‘otherness’.
A veteran East African publisher (name withheld), also expressing himself on social media:
Been thinking of doing the same to European literature. What if one looked at it only as those books written by Europeans about the experience of Europeans in Africa? It would be such a not- so-rich perspective to the body of European literature. But maybe The Economist isn’t after all equipped (ideologically) to talk about the 95% of African books that do not centre Europe or North America. Just maybe.
Courtesy of Alex Nderitu pp. 17-23 of Changing the Literary Map of Africa , 2019.http://www.alexandernderitu.com/
Name: Alexander Nderitu
Movements: The e-book revolution, PEN International, Pan-Africanism